I was reading a number of good articles this weekend over at Asia Times, including several that offer a nuanced & informed view of Iran lacking in the US media (including one  by an ex-IPE official who was involved in talks about establishing the Iranian bourse, What the Iran ‘nuclear issue’ is really about), and began a reading about the Gwadar port facility being constructed in Pakistan’s Balochistan Province.

There is a lot of news about the military actions in the tribal areas along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border, but very little from Balochistan, an ethnic area in southwestern Pakistan that spills over the Iranian border.

Pakistan is building a port in Gwadar, 400km from the Strait of Hormuz, which is shaping up to be the nexus of major geo-political jockeying among the Pakistanis, the Chinese (major investors in the project, as well as supplying workers), Afghanistan,
the Central Asian Republics, India, Iran, & the US.

Balochistan’s strategic importance has increased due to its proximity to Central Asia and the Gulf region, the construction of the Gwadar port, and the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. Two gas pipelines from Turkmenistan and Qatar are also under consideration, which will again pass through Balochistan.    (fromNew approaches to old problems)

An Asia Times article started my reading: China’s pearl loses its luster:

It was the arrival of US troops in Afghanistan – literally at China’s doorstep – in the autumn of 2001 that spurred Beijing into action. China agreed to participate in funding, construction and development of a deepsea port and naval base in Gwadar and in March 2002 Chinese premier Wu Bangguo laid the foundation for the port. Its engineers are engaged in the port’s design and construction.

China insists its interest in Gwadar is purely commercial. No doubt it is hoping that the port will transform the economy of its landlocked Xinjiang province.

However, Gwadar port has a far-larger significance in China’s scheme of things. It is said to be the western-most pearl in China’s “string of pearls” strategy (this is a strategy that envisages building strategic relations with several countries along sea lanes from the Middle East to the South China Sea to protect China’s energy interests and other security objectives), the other “pearls” being naval facilities in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and the South China Sea.

China’s interest in the Gwadar project stems from the port’s proximity to the Strait of Hormuz. A base at Gwadar enables China to secure the flow of its oil – 60% of its energy supplies come from the Middle East – through the strait. More important, Gwadar is said to be a “listening post” for the Chinese, one that will enable Beijing to monitor movement of US and Indian ships in the region.

Pakistan is eyeing huge economic and strategic gains, with Gwadar poised to become a key shipping hub at the mouth of a strategic waterway. A port at Gwadar provides Pakistan with strategic depth vis-a-vis India. Gwadar is 725km to the west of Karachi port, making it that much less vulnerable than Karachi to an Indian naval blockade.

Not surprisingly, the construction of Gwadar port and Sino-Pakistan cooperation in the project are causing concern for India, the United States and Iran. The Chinese presence in the Arabian Sea heightens India’s feeling of encirclement by China. Iran fears that the development of Gwadar port will undermine the value of its own ports as outlets to Central Asia’s exports.

As for the US, it has been uncomfortable with Chinese presence at the mouth of a key waterway. And now in the run-up to a possible war with Iran, Washington appears to be eyeing Gwadar’s naval facilities all the more. It appears that the US is pressuring Pakistan to reduce Chinese involvement in the project and to involve Washington instead.

The New Delhi-based online Public Affairs Magazine has reported that the US “could be [pressuring] Pakistan to outprice the Chinese from Gwadar to take over the entire facility”. Citing diplomats, the report said: “Pakistan has now raised the cost of Chinese participation to US$3 billion in addition to the $1.5 billion yearly payment, which China has refused, saying it is steep, and in breach of the terms of the contract. China has said that it had already agreed to offset construction costs by giving Pakistan four frigates, but Pakistan is unmoved, and offered to return all the Chinese investment, if they would have it that way.”

Dismissing such reports as “wishful thinking on the part of India”, a Pakistani government official told Asia Times Online that the Gwadar project was “very much on track” and that “Sino-Pakistan cooperation in the venture remains strong”.

Meanwhile, ethnic Balochs aren’t too happy with the situation; from a 2003 article, UNREST IN BALOCHISTAN:

. . . the Gwadar project does not seem to be transforming Baloch lives for the better     . . . Balochistan’s Sui gas reserves, for instance, meet 38% of Pakistan’s energy needs, but only 6% of Balochistan’s 6 million people have access to it, and the royalties Balochistan receives for its gas are very low, especially when compared with what other provinces receive. (snip)

There is concern, too, that the Gwadar project would leave Balochis a minority in their homeland. As the Baloch leader, the Khan of Kalat, pointed out in an interview to the Pakistani daily Dawn, the entire project would need at least a million people, and with Gwadar being a town of 60,000, people from “Karachi, mostly Urdu-speaking”, would be brought in.

Not surprisingly, then, the Gwadar project has been repeatedly targeted by Baloch insurgent groups such as the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), the Baloch Liberation Front and the Baloch People’s Liberation Army. Insurgents have struck repeatedly with bombs and rocket attacks. (snip)

In total, according to official data, there were 187 bomb blasts, 275 rocket attacks, eight attacks on gas pipelines, 36 attacks on electricity-transmission lines and 19 explosions on railway lines in 2005. At least 182 civilians and 26 security force personnel died in the province during 2005.

An interesting aspect about Baloch nationalist insurgents, who are by and large secular, and the religious militants is that while both view China as an enemy, their opposition to Chinese involvement in the Gwadar project differs. Tarique Niazi, a specialist on resource-based conflict, said: “Baloch nationalists, for instance, are opposed to the Chinese government for advancing its strategic goals at the expense of their freedom and autonomy. But several religiously inspired groups are opposed to the Chinese government for its putative persecution of the Uighur Muslim minority in the autonomous region of Xinjiang.”

Government instigated ethnic population upheavals aren’t helping matters any:

Another subsequent cause for anger is the large-scale influx of Pashtuns from the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) of Pakistan and Afghanistan, officially encouraged by the Army, and re-settlement of Punjabi ex-servicemen  in order to reduce the Balochs to a minority in their homeland. (snip)

The construction of the Gwadar Port and the Mekran coastal highway has been expedited by the Army  in order to complete the projects one year ahead of schedule.  These projects have resulted in the displacement of  thousands of Balochs from their ancestral land and the forcible acquisition of their land by the Government without paying them adequate compensation and without giving them suitable land in return.  Moreover, fearing Indian attempts to sabotage the projects, the Government has forcibly removed  the  Hindus and many of the Balochs, whose loyalty was suspected, from the area, which has been declared a sensitive defence zone.

While the Hindus have been forced to migrate to Sindh, the Balochs, who are suspected of being sympathetic to India, have been removed far away from the site of the port.  A large number of Punjabi and Pashtun ex-servicemen, whose loyalty to Islamabad is beyond doubt, have been re-settled in the Mekran coastal area to work in these projects. (snip)

“Allegations that the military authorities have bought most of the prime land at throw-away prices are rife.  According to local officials, over 80 per cent of the plots in the Gwadar Singhar Housing Scheme have been arbitrarily allotted to outsiders, many of them senior army and civilian officials. (snip)

The Gwadar Port Authority (GPA), for instance, is run by a retired Admiral based in Karachi. The city’s Master Plan, prepared by the National Engineering Service of Pakistan (NESPAK), is another no-go area for the local authorities.  Even provincial authorities were virtually bypassed in its formulation.

“The controversial plan betrays NESPAK’s complete disregard for local sensitivities or socio-economic conditions. For one, locals fear that the under-estimation of the present and future population may lead to their conversion into a minority in the future.  The plan envisages the relocation of a large chunk of the old city’s population, but without any concrete, stated resettlement plan, lending credence to public fears of mass dislocation. (snip)

Faced with the growing resentment of the Balochs, Gen. Pervez Musharraf sacked Lt.Gen.(Retd) Abdul Qadir, a son of the soil, whom he had appointed as the Governor of Balochistan only a few months earlier after he had retired as the Corps Commander, Quetta, due to suspicion that his sympathies were with the nationalists and appointed Owais Ahmad Ghani, a Pashtun from the adjoining NWFP, as  Balochistan’s 19th Governor.

He became  a provincial minister in the NWFP under the military regime and was later elevated to the Federal Cabinet. He is very close to Musharraf and had strongly supported Musharraf’s continuing as the Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) and the various constitutional amendments arbitrarily introduced by him. Like Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali, a Baloch,  he is also viewed as close to the US and as the blue-eyed favourite of the US intelligence community. His appointment is meant partly to ensure that effective action was taken against the Baloch nationalists and partly to reassure the US and China  of  effective law enforcement  in the province. He was sworn in on August 11, 2003.  Even though this is not the first time that an outsider has been appointed as the provincial Governor, his appointment at this sensitive juncture has added to the resentment of the local people, who view themselves as a virtual colony of Punjab. (snip)

Balochistan, which is now ruled by a coalition of six Islamic fundamentalist parties and the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League (Qaide Azam), is an area of growing concern and interest for the US. US aircraft operating from the Pasni air base have been playing an active role in the US-led war against terrorism in Afghanistan. Large sections of the increasing local Pashtun population, many of them Afghan refugees who were given Pakistani citizenship by the military in order to reduce the Balochs to a minority, have been sympathetic to the Taliban and Al Qaeda and have given protection and shelter to the dregs of the Taliban, Al Qaeda and Gulbuddin Heckmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami (HEI), who have been operating from these sanctuaries against the troops of the US and Hamid Karzai’s Government in Afghanistan, with the complicity of the provincial Government and serving and retired officers of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

The influx of the dregs of Osama bin Laden’s International Islamic Front (IIF) into the province has injected the anti-Shia poison, hitherto absent from Balochistan, into the province, with frequent massacres of the Shias, particularly the members of the Hazara tribe, who are targeted by the Taliban and Al Qaeda, because of their suspected sympathy for the Northern Alliance of Afghanistan. (snip)

 About 30 per cent of the oil and gas interests in the province are controlled by American companies from Texas. The safety of their investments and property and of the lives of the US citizens associated with these projects is another area of concern for Washington. (snip)

The Balochs in the bordering areas of Iran constitute a major Sunni segment of the Iranian population.  In the past, the US intelligence community had maintained close relations with them and in the years when Saddam Hussein was the frontline ally of the US in its attempts to destabilise the Islamic regime in Iran, Baloch assets in Iran were eagerly sought after by the intelligence agencies of both the US and Iraq, who looked upon each other as brothers-in-arms.

Now things have changed. Large sections of the Sunni Balochs of Iran have thrown in their lot with the dregs of the Al Qaeda and the other constituents of the IIF. Many leading figures of Al Qaeda have taken shelter in the Baloch areas of Iran, which have become an important transit point for the clandestine movement of the jihadis of the Al Qaeda, the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET), the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM) and others to Iraq to participate in the jihad against the US troops there.

Under US pressure to restore law and order in Balochistabn, Musharraf, with financial assistance from the US Central Command, has embarked upon a plan for the construction of three more cantonments in Balochistan at Dera Bugti, Kohlu and Gwadar.  Though these cantonments have been projected by the Pakistan Army as meant to enable the Army deal more effectively with the dregs of the IIF, the Baloch nationalists fear that Musharraf has been exploiting the US concerns to get money for strengthening the Army presence in the province to enable him to crush the nationalists at an opportune moment.

Wilson John editorializes:

Of all the reasons, there is one reason why the world must pay immediate attention to what is happening in Balochistan. Here, a military dictator ruling without any political legitimacy for more than five years has now launched an ethnic cleansing which, to say the least, is colossally retrogressive and inhuman. (snip)

It is not difficult to see that there are quite a few compelling reasons for Gen Musharraf to have the “troublesome” tribals out of the way at the earliest. As an anonymous Pakistani official told Asiatimes online recently, “Next year is the target date to eliminate all tribal areas in Balochistan and convert them into settled areas.” In other words, suppress an indigenous community to make way for a new globalised Pakistan.

And then there’s the cheery headline, Pakistan Army using chemical weapons in Balochistan, says former Chief Minister Mengal:

Former Chief Minister of Pakistan’s Balochistan province, Sardar Akhtar Mengal . . . backed his claim by showing pictures of Baluch civilians who he said had been hit by chemical weapons.

Further backing his claim of use of chemical weapons Mengal pointed to the pictures and said that you will note the blood coming out of people’s mouth without any injury to their bodies…what does this show…it shows that poisonous gases have been used in the military operation. (snip)

“Chemical weapons are being used (to resolve the crisis), and a large number of women and children have died as a result,” Mengal claimed in an interaction with the media here. (snip)

Mengal’s lament was completely endorsed and supported by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), which categorically rejected repeated claims by authorities in Islamabad that regular armed forces were not being used to crackdown on people in Balochistan in the wake of a string of rocket attacks by tribal militants last month.

The HRCP claimed that it had concrete evidence that action by the armed forces had led to the deaths and injuries among civilians” and that “populations had also been subjected to indiscriminate bombing”. (snip)

According to a HRCP report, up to 85 percent of the 22,000 to 26,000-strong population in Balochistan’s Dera Bugti town has fled from their homes after they were repeatedly hit by paramilitary shelling.

The report described the situation in Balochistan as “a war-like situation, militarisation and politico-economic conflict in Balochistan,” and by denying this government was only confusing the issue and “making it more intractable.” (snip)

The Pakistani military launched a major crackdown against militants in Balochistan after a rocket attack on December 14 during a visit by President Pervez Musharraf to the town of Kohlu.

Baloch nationalists say almost 200 people have been killed. The government has not commented on casualties but analysts say the militants’ figure could be exaggerated.

Balochistan is home to Pakistan’s main gas fields and local militants are battling for more autonomy and control of these resources and greater autonomy.

The crackdown has coincided with the announcement of plans to privatise two gas distribution firms operating in Balochistan.

Plight of the Balochis of Pakistan: Overshadowed by the war against terror:

To an average and uninformed reader, Balochistan is a place were Pakistani security forces have been conducting war against terror against the Al-Queda and Islamic fundamentalist forces. Yet, the war in Balohistan is not simply another case of war against terror.    (snip)

The ongoing heavy military operations in Balochistan is well-kown and the recommendations of the Parliamentary Committee have been thrown out of the window. In the post September 11th period, Pakistan government has been able to club the Balochi rebellion as another basket case of Islamic fundamentalism and take draconian measures. Yet, there is no military solution to the crisis and the military regime of General Musharaff is unlikely to opt for a solution through dialogue. The Balochistan crisis is a clear example of the fact that tribalism is stronger than religious fundamentalism. It is the identity of the Balochis which is at stake.

Further reading:

US uneasy as Beijing develops a strategic string of pearls


China voices concern over delay in Gwadar port opening

Navy launches burnt in Gwadar

‘No foreign support to Baloch unrest’, says a French diplomat: A senior French diplomat has publicly contradicted Pak President Musharraf’s claim that India has been helping Baloch insurgents . . . ‘The outbreak of another civil war in Balochistan between the nationalists and the Pakistan Army cannot be ruled out if the minimum demands of the Baloches are not met’

Balochistan heading towards armed insurrection: Carnegie paper

Crowd gets student leaders released from police station   

Terrorists’ network to be eliminated: Balochistan minister

Chilean co to invest in Balochistan

Trade pact with Tashkent: Pakistan and Uzbekistan have agreed to enter into a trilateral transit trade agreement with Afghanistan to benefit from the Gwadar port facility . . .

Gwadar News

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